Texas PHVAC contractors face unprecedented challenge.

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As Texas settled into a deadly-serious Polar Vortex, you could predict the pattern emerging based on your own past experiences with bitter-cold sustained weather conditions: No-heat calls inundating your emergency calls; heating systems not able to keep up with demand; heating systems stressed to the breaking-point; followed by frozen water lines, water services and water mains; and then biblical flooding and damage once thawing temperatures arrived. 

There’s a major difference between the Northeast — where I’m located — and Texan home construction. Here, most homes have basements and plumbing enjoys a larger measure of protection from freezing. In Texas, and many other areas of the U.S., plumbing — especially water lines — are either at grade or buried just a few inches below grade in crawl spaces or in the attic — often above the insulation and, therefore, exposed to ambient air temperatures. 

Over the years, I would watch as a Polar Vortex or Siberian Express bitter cold air mass would wash over the middle of our country and reach deep into Texas, only to move east and up into our area. Immediately followed by the triple-threat of no-heat calls, frozen pipes (after three successive days of frigid temps), and, finally, water damage as pipes and buildings thawed out. We would work round the clock — sometimes literally — until our customers had heat and safe potable water.

We once replaced a large dry-fired cast-iron steam boiler in an overnight challenge because the commercial customer had scheduled meetings with out-of-town business folks starting at noon the next day. We completed the replacement at 7:30 a.m. the following day, and then I went to work that same day — tired and bone weary, but elated that our crews had stepped up, accepted the challenge and persevered through the 24-hour workload. 
Our brothers and sisters in Texas are faced with a much tougher challenge than anything the majority of us have ever faced.

A call for plumbers

Texas, embroiled in a licensure issue for plumbing contractors for some time, has relaxed its license requirements in order to entice plumbing contractors from other states to come help its residents and businesses recover and repair damaged plumbing. Lois suggested I go, but to be perfectly and brutally honest, this 69-year-old body ain’t what it once was and doesn’t exactly flex like it once did for fighting cramped crawl and attic spaces. Sorry, but that’s a younger person’s game. 

Our Texan brethren (female and male) are nothing short of heroes as Texas recovers. Plenty of blame to go around for the power-grid failures will be revealed in the coming months with finger pointing and wagging to boot, but one thing that cannot be denied will be the stories of heroic PHVAC workers who selflessly stepped up to meet this tragedy that has reached epic proportions. Working endless hours providing sanitary plumbing repairs is just a continuation of what they do every day of the week, and twice on Sundays. Heroic seems so inadequate a word under these circumstances.

While it’s easy to armchair quarterback the response to what these plumbers and HVAC technicians face from the comfort of our own been-there-done-that circumstances, nothing we’ve seen can hold a candle to what is transpiring in Texas. A failed electrical grid; sustained bitter arctic cold well beyond any design-day heating calculations; the Covid-19 pandemic; and then, add a heaping helping of stress as contractors strive to meet demands of loyal customers and non-loyal customers. 

This is not a time for customers who have deliberately stiffed their mechanical contractor! I well remember desperate customers who had stiffed us begging for assistance: Have the cash in hand for the past work plus cash for a defined time-period, and if more is needed, pay up before we continue! Karma. 

I’ll never forget the egg farm’s desperate call for help after leaving us in the lurch and declaring bankruptcy who couldn’t get any mechanical contractor to help: You still owe x-number of dollars, so you’ll need that plus x-number of dollars before I’ll come to fix those issues. “We don’t have to pay that because we declared bankruptcy.” Fine, then I don’t need to come. They paid in full! 

But, as with every environmental crisis, there will be zeros that give us all a black eye. Vultures who prey on those suffering the dire consequences of Mother Nature’s wrath will be present. 

I had (emphasis on had) a friend who owned an automotive rustproofing franchise. He and a mechanical contractor formed a partnership after his rustproofing business went bankrupt. I’ll give him this: He was one of the best salesmen I ever encountered. Together, they hoodwinked me into doing work as a subcontractor, and then stiffed me on a $5,000 job. Then when Hurricane Andrew hit, he smelled opportunity and went there to sell HVAC work. Last I heard, he had headed to Florida after a major hurricane hit there. Follow the money! 

The sad truth is Texas will have its share of zeros along with its countless heroes. Folks who prey on victim’s poor fortune in order to steal a fortune are the scum of the earth, and I pray Texas will be savvy enough to pursue those charlatans and prosecute them to the fullest extent of the law. 

Electric companies taking advantage of folks by jacking up bills to abhorrent levels deserve a special place in hell. Folks afraid to turn on power for more than an hour each day due to exorbitant rates represents an abhorrent billing practice that should be illegal. To some degree, greed no doubt played a role in keeping Texas off the national grid and as an isolated entity. Hopefully, this mess will lead to a better regulated electric utility industry better poised to flex power sources so our fellow PHVAC brothers and sisters don’t have to pay the consequences of poorly thought-out utility bosses. 

The stress created by unending emergency calls for help cannot be denied. Every call that goes unanswered, no matter the reason, adds to the stress levels felt and internalized by our southern mechanical contractors in Texas, and other regions affected by this recent Polar Vortex. PTSD is a real and expected outcome for many who strived to meet the demands and deserves our respect. The struggle is real, the heroism is greatly respected and those of you who have served honorably deserve the utmost respect.

This article is also available at: https://www.pmmag.com/articles/103454-dave-yates-heroes-and-zeros